It’s the end of the day, you’ve worked hard, and now you’re home and it’s time to relax. So you open up your laptop and settle in to transcribe some bee specimen labels. Or the packing list of a space shuttle. Or the field notes of a naturalist tromping through early 19th century Ireland.
It may sound odd, but plenty of people would rather parse the curly, old-fashioned handwriting of a bugle player in a Civil War military band than stream an old episode of Breaking Bad, as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s online Transcription Center. So far, 5,883 volunteers from around the world have transcribed more than 150,000 pages from over 1,000 projects.
This effort exists because of a simple fact: just digitizing something isn’t the last step in making something useful to scholars or the general population.
“Digitizing materials is really important but that’s not the only step to making them accessible,” says anthropologist Meghan Ferriter, project coordinator of the Transcription Center.
Launched in 2013, the project invites anyone with access to a computer to choose from a buffet of documents supplied by 14 of the Smithsonian’s libraries, archives and museums. Volunteers participate anonymously or create profiles, and each project comes with specific instructions. Participants read scanned pages and type their transcriptions into a field below. Many users work on multiple projects in small chunks, so that any given text is transcribed by a team. Transcriptions are reviewed by fellow volunteers and then signed off on by a Smithsonian staffer before being declared complete.
Research institutes have rushed in recent years to digitize their holdings, but without transcriptions, text-based assets can’t be searched. Turning hardcopies into searchable text opens up a new world of research possibilities and plenty of institutes are getting on board. Curious gourmands can take part in the New York Public Library’s effort to transcribe historic menus. (In 1901, a plate of calf’s liver and bacon in the Union Pacific dining car would set you back 40 cents.) The National Archives is crowdsourcing the transcription of photo captions from the National Forestry Service and works documenting Wounded Knee. You can dig into women’s diaries or the history of the transcontinental railroad via the University of Iowa Libraries or bivalve specimens through the Australia-based Atlas of Living.